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Meaning

Religious Radicals

In 1848, Joseph Brackett, Jr., a Shaker from Maine, wrote a short little tune he titled “Simple Gifts.” Only two verses long, the song’s words celebrated the Shaker principles of simplicity and humility, while the tune provided a tidy little rhythm that could accompany the dancing that Shakers placed in their religious services.

Brackett never expected his song to have a large audience. When he wrote it, there were only 6,000 Shakers in the entire country, and by the end of the century, the Shakers had all but disappeared and their music with them. But in 1944, American composer Aaron Copland placed Brackett’s little tune at the center of his score for a ballet entitled Appalachian Spring. Later converted into an orchestral suite, Copland’s work celebrated the pioneer spirit of the American frontier.

For many, the simple Shaker melody was the most moving part of Copland’s opus, while for others its inclusion was a curious choice. The Shakers were a radical religious sect. Practicing economic communism, anticipating the end of the world, and preaching celibacy—like, legit celibacy, complete celibacy, “all of our kids are adopted” celibacy—, they were not exactly the sort of community most imagined when they thought of the American frontier. But then Copland was Jewish, openly gay, and a political radical, so perhaps, the song and its origins expressed his understanding of what was best in America’s pioneer past, not what was most prevalent.

A Fair Shake

When Brackett wrote “Simple Gifts” in 1848, the Shakers—their full name is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—had been in America for close to 75 years. Formed in France during the 17th century, members of the sect had migrated to England in the 18th and then crossed the Atlantic to America in 1774. Their leader, Ann Lee, settled her followers along the Hudson River region of New York.

The Shakers were fundamentally Christian, but with some significant twists. Believing that the end of the world was fast approaching, they discouraged marriage and having children. Instead, they demanded celibacy—a life without marriage and sex—, believing that the demands of marriage and childrearing would distract believers from what should be their focus: preparing for the Second Coming of Christ.

The Shakers also practiced a form of economic communism. Members were asked to surrender their private property to the community, and the “family’s” economic course was directed by a small group of elders. These elders decided what and when to plant, with whom to trade, and what sorts of cottage industries might best supplement the community’s income. They produced and sold things like baskets, brooms, and medicinal herbs. They also packaged garden seeds and made applesauce. They were best known, however, for their furniture. Simply designed and wonderfully crafted, Shaker furniture embodied the Shaker belief that “beauty rests on utility.”

During the 1800s, though, the most radical aspect of Shaker life was their treatment of women. No, no, no, in good way. In the Shaker community, women were elevated to positions of leadership. They preached, became elders, and were selected to govern several communities. Ann Lee set the example when she rose to prominence among English Shakers through her eloquent evangelism and courageous opposition to restrictions on religious speech. In America, her followers elevated her status even further. They identified “Mother Ann” as the female incarnation of God—the female version of Jesus, basically—, and in doing so they broke down one of the walls to female equality within Christianity.

Apocalyptic, communist, and implicitly feminist, the Shakers held some unusual beliefs even by some people’s standards today, but it was their dancing that really drew attention. Shakers believed that God continued to reveal Him/Herself and that through prayer they might receive an energizing infusion of His/Her Spirit. God’s Spirit might inspire them to preach, or it might inspire them to sing or dance, so music and dance was incorporated into Shaker worship. Many of the dances followed a ritual-like form; men and women would follow patterns performed for decades. Occasionally this dance would take on the enthusiasm and free-form spontaneity of a mystical experience, though.

“Simple Gifts” was written to accompany the Shakers’ dance of worship. Shakers also wrote hymns and work songs, but in Shaker songbooks “Simple Gifts” was listed as a “dancing song” or “quick dance.” Moreover, one line told the inspired dancers exactly what to do: “To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come 'round right.”

Simple Song for a Simple Life

The lyrics offered more than “simple” dance instructions; they also summed up core Shaker beliefs. “'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,” wrote Brackett. Satisfaction was not attained through the acquisition of power or wealth. Instead, it was attained through humility and freedom from worldly goods. In fact, when “true simplicity” was achieved, people were not embarrassed by their poverty or lack of power. The song even proclaimed, “to bow and bend we shan't be asham'd.” This simple life, free of material possessions and worldly concerns, would lead to happiness and prepare people for the kingdom of God about to unfold on earth. “When we find ourselves in the place just right,” wrote Brackett, “’twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

Bracket wrote “Simple Gifts” when the sect was at its peak membership. In 1848, the Shakers had 19 communities and roughly 6,000 members. To a certain extent, this growth had been fueled by a larger wave of religious enthusiasm known as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning in the South around 1800 and travelling to the Northeast during the 1820s and 1830s, this movement reshaped American religion. Older churches had preached a complex and somewhat depressing message: humankind was riddled by sin and there was nothing that people could do about it. God promised to save a few, but He alone decided who these would be, and nothing a person did could influence His judgment. In contrast, the evangelical preachers of the Second Great Awakening argued that humans could pray down a revival and pray down God’s blessings. Their salvation still depended on God’s Grace, but they could start the process by repenting their sins and inviting God into their lives.

This more optimistic message was complemented by the argument that individuals should trust their own religious judgments. They were as able as any trained preacher to read and interpret the Bible and were even invited to testify at religious services—and to do so enthusiastically. They felt that the glories of salvation should be celebrated energetically; if God’s mercy inspired a person to shout, jump, or sing, they should do.

This exciting and empowering message led to rapid growth within evangelical denominations like the Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ, but not everyone was satisfied within these comparatively mainstream churches. Some wanted more, a more complete change of lifestyle to match their change of heart, and sects like the Millerites, the Mormons, and the Shakers provided a home for these more demanding converts.

Gone But Not Forgotten

The Shakers experienced significant growth on the fringes of the Second Great Awakening, but this growth was hard to sustain, especially after the energy within the larger movement began to subside. One major issue was that celibacy prevented the Shakers from growing naturally. For a time they were able to add to their numbers by taking in orphans. Neighboring non-Shakers turned to them to provide homes for abandoned and neglected children. Even this was an unreliable source of new members, though. When they reached adulthood, these orphans were given the choice to remain or go, and many chose to leave.

By the end of the 19th century, only a few communities and a few hundred members remained, but the Shakers left behind a broad legacy. Today, many remember the Shakers as the first American religion to acknowledge the full equality of women and declare not only that women could be leaders, but also that God came to earth as both man and woman. For others, the Shakers are respected for their communal simplicity. They rejected commercialism and materialism at a time when more and more Americans were becoming excited by the potential for profits with America’s expanding market economy. Some most appreciate the furniture the Shakers left behind—austere yet elegant designs that manage to be both functional and beautiful. Still others value the Shakers’ contributions to American music the most.

Aaron Copland was among those impressed by the hymns, work songs, and dance tunes written by the Shakers primarily during the 19th century. But Copland appreciated these songs for more than just their melodies. As a young composer he became intrigued by the possibilities lying within America’s own music. He poured through the works of the great European and Russian composers, and he studied briefly in Paris, but he believed that American music should tap its native sources—for example folk and jazz—and that it should reflect America’s common people, their democratic values, and their frontier spirit.

However, in choosing to place “Simple Gifts” at the center of Appalachian Spring, one of his most celebrated works, he paid tribute to a very distinctive thread within America history and belief. He recognized a people who stripped their lives down to the most basic of elements in order to prepare for something deemed of far greater importance. He honored a religious community that chose to live outside the American mainstream and accept the criticism and sometimes ridicule that came with this. He acknowledged the courage of people who challenged Americans to rethink an institution as fundamental as the structure of the family and embraced a sexual code that others found unnatural.

For Aaron Copland, Jewish in a predominantly Christian nation, politically radical during the conservative years during and after World War II, and gay in a stridently heterosexual society, the Shakers offered more than an appealing melody; they represented the courage and contributions of those who had chosen to not drive down the middle of the American road; they served as a reminder that American history and American life was enriched by the creative and “unconventional” and that the “pioneer spirit” was about more than log cabins, wagon trains, and hoedowns.
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